Gen Y and parental leave: Save us from ourselves!
Without legislation, we may not get what we really want.
There was a great story in the New York Times by Katrin Bennhold on June 8th entitled “In Sweden, Where Men can Have it All.” The article took a look at what Sweden’s progressive social policies have achieved in regards to parental leave. With over a year of paid parental leave split between the parents as they see fit, but with two months reserved specifically for fathers, Sweden’s taking mighty steps to try to make parenting a more equal enterprise.
But that’s not all. Swedish policy makers are also motivated by the need to de-stigmatize motherhood. If a man is as likely to take time off work as a woman when they have a baby, employers will have less reason to view women as flight-risks. Bennhold writes, “In this land of Viking lore, men are at the heart of the gender-equality debate. The ponytailed center-right finance minister calls himself a feminist, ads for cleaning products rarely feature women as homemakers, and preschools vet books for gender stereotypes in animal characters. For nearly four decades, governments of all political hues have legislated to give women equal rights at work — and men equal rights at home.” The view being mirrored is one I constantly champion: stop using reductivist and excluding labels like “women’s issues;” if we don’t bring men into the debate in a compelling way nothing will happen. In the New York Times piece former Swedish deputy prime minister Bengt Westerberg weighs in, “‘Society is a mirror of the family,’ Mr. Westerberg said. ‘The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home. Getting fathers to share the parental leave is an essential part of that.’”
Liz and I have spent quite a bit of time interviewing young people that we have categorized as Gen Y-Fi– in other words, Generation Y:ers who are well-educated and digitally savvy.Views on parenthood and parental leave was a major part of these interviews. We found that the vast majority of young men we spoke to were adamant about stressing the importance of hands-on fatherhood. Similarly, the young women we interviewed all said that sharing parenthood equally with their spouse was important, an ideal to strive for. And all of the Gen Y-Fi:ers we spoke to were shocked to learn how poor American policy is when it comes to parental leave. (Recap: As we keep harping, especially on this blog, the USA is the only industrial nation in the world that has no federally mandated paid maternity or paternity leave. Instead, the US has the Families and Medical Leave Act which provides 12 weeks of leave, but it is unpaid. And it only applies to companies with 50 or more employees, which obviously leaves a whole bunch of people out. In other words, the US offers very spotty coverage.)
Based on what the young people we spoke to said about parental leave, we can expect that the next generation of American parents are going to be amazingly egalitarian, just like their Swedish peers across the pond.
But wait, there’s more.
As our interviews wore on, a wave of fundamentally divergent and less egalitarian views surfaced. Often, the same person who first answered that they would support equal leave for mothers as well as fathers later spoke of the act of staying home as more expected for women than men for varying reasons. Some young women explained that they don’t believe “motivated” men would be willing to take parental leave– their egos couldn’t take it. And the motivated Gen Y-Fi men themselves said they were hesitant to take parental leave because they believed it was stigmatized to such an extent that it would negatively impact their careers, even sink them.
What it comes down to is that the same Gen Y-Fi:ers who said they want to share equally actually don’t expect to share equally. Why? The answer may very well be found in the lack of legislation.
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was an economist named Thomas Schelling. When Schelling studied the National Hockey League, he found something surprising regarding whether or not the players chose to wear helmets on the ice. This was the seventies, a time when helmets were not a requirement. It was up to each individual player to decide whether or not to wear one. Hockey is a violent sport, and wearing a helmet can protect against severe head trauma. All the same, most players chose not to wear a helmet. The thing was, not wearing a helmet gave a player certain advantages. Helmet-less players looked cooler, and fiercer, on the ice. Going helmet-less also gave the player better peripheral vision. Yet, when Schelling administred an anonymous poll, the vast majority of players said they thought the league should make wearing helmets a requirement. Individually, players felt they couldn’t afford to wear a helmet if other players were choosing not to, and thus gaining a competitive advantage. But really, honestly, they didn’t want to risk the head trauma. Helmets are now a requirement in the NHL. The playing field (or rink in this case) has been leveled, and fewer players suffer head trauma. Schelling won the Nobel Prize.
In a July 23, 2007 New Yorker article entitled “Fuel for Thought,” James Surowiecki used the Schelling study to talk about the crux of the American auto indsutry. In polls, Americans said they wanted higher fuel-economy standards, while in their own lives they were buying SUVs. Surowiecki argued that it’s with the American car owners as it was with the NHL players: they really want more fuel-efficient cars, but they’re afraid to step out of line without regulation forcing the change on everyone. Who wants to drive a Prius when your neighbor’s in a Hummer?
Schelling’s study seems to apply to American Gen Y-Fi:ers and parental leave as well. Pretty much all the young people Liz and I have interviewed over the years say they want to take lengthy parental leave– women as well as men. But when it comes to actually doing it, they are more reluctant, especially the men, for whom the social stigma is arguably the greatest. A young guy we interviewed, let’s call him ”David,” wasn’t ready to take time off, even if he desperately wanted to, since he thought it would let guys get ahead of him career-wise. Though another guy, “Nick,” said he wanted to take paternity leave he added, “I just know that none of the guys that I have worked with have done it and I wonder what the back room chatter would be if I chose to do that.” The Gen Y-Fi:ers we’ve spoken to seem to yearn to be more present and egalitarian parents (to wear their helmets, if you will), but don’t want to lose their competitive edge in the marketplace (by going helmet-less). As long as there is no order from above, such as federally mandated equal parental leave, there is little chance that these young men will do what they actually want to do– and what I would argue would be good for both them and their families. Perhaps, as Surowiecki writes, “we need to save ourselves from ourselves.”
The New York Times article about Swedish parental leave policies also discusses the economic costs of such a generous social system. One thing Bennhold discovered is that companies adjust to the status quo, which in Sweden now includes both men and women taking advantage of the parental leave granted them. “For many companies, a family-friendly work pattern has simply become a new way of attracting talent. ‘Graduates used to look for big paychecks. Now they want work-life balance,’ said Goran Henriksson, head of human resources at the cellphone giant Ericsson in Sweden, where last year 28 percent of female employees took leave, and 24 percent of male staff did. ‘We have to adapt.’” Judging by what the Gen Y-Fi:ers we interviewed said they wanted and valued, he may very well be right. And, since I’m afraid no new federal mandates regarding parental leave are forthcoming in the US, perhaps American companies seeking an edge in recruiting young talent would do well to follow suit.